Where: St. Petersburg and Moscow
When: 11 days in September
How: I worked with a travel consultant at MIR Corporation, who booked everything for me, from flights to guides and drivers, hotels, transfer to and from airports and to and from train, as well as organizing the visa for me.
Background: This had been a dream trip of mine for a long time. My interest in Russia goes back to elementary school and I’d never been. I turned this into a splurge vacation for myself in honor of a certain unmentionable milestone birthday. I say “splurge” because ordinarily I travel independently and would gladly organize everything myself, and do it somewhat cheaper than this ended up being. I had done enough initial research to know that it would be difficult but not impossible to do this trip on my own. I probably could have but given the purpose of the trip, I really just wanted to go and enjoy and have all the work done for me. I know this is controversial to some to say this, but I fully intended this to be a trip of a lifetime, and I didn’t want any hassle to come my way.
Why MIR? The reasons I chose MIR were many. Obviously I wanted some degree of independence and I did not want to be limited to the confines of a group of folks who’d celebrated a few more milestone birthdays than I have (no offense intended, that’s just not my cup of tea). I also didn't want to spend the vacation getting on and off buses and following a guide around like sheep wearing a headset to hear her audio. And finally, I still am an independent traveler. I wanted time on my own to see the cities on my own. With those constraints, my consultant at MIR asked for my proposed itinerary (what I wanted to do in Russia, a financial budget and a time budget, as well as possible times I wanted to go). She came back with the first itinerary, I found a couple of things I wanted to change and we finalized it. That was in January! So I had a long nine months to prepare, but MIR sends out an extensive reading list that I tore right into. I also sent the same itinerary request to Exeter International, and they came in nearly double what MIR quoted me (which was a HUGE difference), the biggest difference in the packages being 5-star hotels and first class train between cities. It was a no brainer for me...MIR was it.
Lenin's Tomb by David Remnick
Among the Russians by Colin Thubron
Russia: a Concise History by Ronald Hingley
Catherine the Great: A Short History by Isabella de Madariaga
Ten Days that Shook the World by John Reed
The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg by Helen Rappaport
The Amber Room: The Fate of the World's Greatest Lost Treasure by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark
City of Thieves by David Benioff (fiction but a great story)
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (ditto)
¼ of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
I taught myself Cyrillic using “Teach Yourself Beginner’s Russian Script” which was the best book I bought on the subject. I also bought a few language books with CDs to listen to as well as use the free One Minute Russian and Survival Russian podcasts on iTunes. I knew enough to more than get by and most always once I tried to speak Russian, the person I was talking to would speak English. I highly recommend learning the Cyrillic alphabet at the very least. It will help to navigate in train stations, find restaurants and for me, read many of the cards next to artwork in museums that weren’t in English. So many times I wanted to know who the artist was and I was able to sound it out!
Getting there and getting around
I flew from Boston to Frankfurt to St Petersburg on Lufthansa. The transfer was flawless and I breezed through immigration in St. Petersburg and my suitcase was first off the belt. Great start! My first driver was right outside the baggage claim waiting for me, and he pointed me to ATMs on the far side of the arrivals hall.
I took the Sapsan high speed train between St. Petersburg and Moscow, second class, which was comfortable enough and served its purpose. I take trains all the time to get to work and to NYC on the odd occasion and this was no better or worse than any of them.
Coming home I flew Moscow to Munich to Boston, also on Lufthansa. I was concerned about only having 90 minutes to connect in Munich, but I did it in 35 minutes, with a full security search, a stop in the bathroom and buying water on the way. We were delayed 2 hours leaving due to something burning in the galley, but the pretzels stuffed with sausage and mustard they serve more than made up for the inconvenience!
There are not enough superlatives in my vocabulary to adequately describe or thank the two guides that MIR organized for me. In St. Petersburg, I met Katya and she worked with me for four days. We were close in age and over the course of spending four full days together, we became close friends. It was a great opportunity for me to talk to someone my age one on one and ask questions about her life here and how it may or may not differ from mine and how it changed post-Communism. Likewise for her, I believe. She really, really knows her subject matter. She took me on a city tour, tours in the churches, the summer palaces, the Hermitage. There was nothing she didn’t seem to know. I mentioned I was looking for a fur hat for my Dad and was frustrated at the quality and price out on the stands on the street. So one day she took me to the state fur store, where prices and quality are much improved and we found exactly what I wanted for about what I wanted to pay. To me, she really went out of her way to help me and that was above and beyond what I ever expected.
In Moscow, I had Irina as a guide and she was equally talented and friendly and also had the same breadth of knowledge that Katya did. She had some wonderful restaurant recommendations for me and also pulled some strings to get me in the Diamond Fund, which I had not expected to see!
In both cases, I had guides until 2 or 3 p.m. each day (except on palace days when it was until 5 or so), and then the remainder of the day was on my own. This ended up being a perfect balance of guiding/learning and exploring on my own.
Club Agni Hotel -- In St. Petersburg, this small boutique hotel (I’d say almost a guest house) is fairly well situated. It is directly off Nevskiy Prospekt, and maybe 15 minutes to Church on Spilled Blood and 25 minutes on foot to the Hermitage. I had a standard single room with a full sized bed, which was very comfortable. My only complaint might be the size of the shower, which was smaller than I’d seen in all my travels. Breakfast was included every day, and was your standard corn flakes, yogurt, juice, coffee, tea, a couple hot items and toast. Free wireless internet and a perfectly silent room made this a delightful stay. I would most definitely stay here again, but be sure to remember that it is a challenging walk when burdened with various shopping bags! The desk staff did know some English but the breakfast room folks did not.
Hotel Budapest – In Moscow, this is a Fodors choice and I would say a decent one. The location is about 10 minutes’ walk to Red Square and the Kremlin and there are slews of restaurants and a few metro station options nearby. It is most definitely a business class hotel. I found it was completely deserted on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights and the following mornings at breakfast, but Tuesday morning it was quite crowded. Wireless internet rates are extortionate, as are mini bar charges. Internet was $13 an hour. The room was bigger than at the Agni and the bathroom much more comfortable, but the bed was hands down the worse I’d ever stayed on; it felt as if I was laying on only a box spring, it was that hard and uncomfortable. Breakfast (also included in room rate) however was exceptional and the staff spoke excellent English and were friendly enough.
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Celebrating a Milestone in Russia - St Petersburg and Moscow
Where: St. Petersburg and Moscow